Squaring the Circle: Czech Film and the Prague Spring

The Ear

Still from The Ear (DVD available from Second Run)

All Power to the Imagination: 1968 and its Legacies

May 2- June 10

Various London venues


In 1965 and 1967, Czechoslovakia won its first Hollywood Oscars – for A Shop on the High Street (Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos) and Closely Observed Trains (Jiří­ Menzel, 1966). In the same period, Miloš Forman’s A Blonde in Love (1965) and The Firemen’s Ball (1967) were also short-listed, and at Cannes in 1968 – before Godard and Truffaut closed the Festival – three Czech films were in competition. It was a golden era for Czech and Slovak cinema and, for a time, names such as Miloš Forman, Jiří­ Menzel, and Věra Chytilová were up there among the leading art-house directors.

This change in the public face of one of the Eastern bloc’s most hard-line regimes was not deceptive. In 1968, the so-called ‘reform Communists’ took over and a new leader of the Communist Party was elected in the person of Alexander Dubček. ‘Socialism with a human face’ was the journalist’s description, yet the actual and proposed reforms went much wider – the rehabilitation of political prisoners, the curtailment of the powers of the secret police, the abolition of censorship, freedom of the press, the reintroduction of market mechanisms, the permitting of alternative political parties, the establishment of workers’ councils among them. In fact, to quote Dubček, ‘the widest possible democratisation of the whole socio-political system’. Without actually abdicating the ‘leading role of the Communist Party’, there was a genuine sense that Communism had taken the moral high ground – that the circle could be squared and that Communism and democracy could be combined. The ‘mistakes’ of the 1950s could be left behind, change was possible, and the dreams of a generation could be achieved.

In retrospect, particularly in the light of the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian revolution in 1956, it seems inconceivable that anyone thought this would be allowed. The reforms did, after all, represent a threat to the whole system of bureaucratic rule established in the Eastern bloc. The West, since it had participated in the division of Europe at the Yalta Conference in 1945, would only shed crocodile tears if the experiment went wrong. Had the reformers succeeded, they really would have demonstrated that there were political alternatives to the fossilised models of East and West. Yet, when the Warsaw Pact armies invaded on August 21, it came as a profound shock and surprise. People defended the reforms, tried to explain the real situation to their perplexed invaders, and the Communist Party held its secret congress. But the government was kidnapped, taken to Moscow, and forced to sign an agreement legalising the occupation.

Over the next year, the reformers were systematically removed from office and a government amenable to Moscow’s demands was instituted. According to one source, the Communist Party was purged of 70,000 members and many more resigned or were ‘removed’. Many, particularly intellectuals, emigrated – up to 80,000 in the autumn of 1968. Major filmmakers associated with the cinematic New Wave such as Forman, Ján Kadár and Ivan Passer, ended up in the USA, where they continued their careers.

It is often argued that the Czech ‘New Wave’, which attracted so much attention in the 1960s, was essentially a non-political movement, that it only produced art films and comedies for a middle-class international audience. But this was far from the truth. Forman’s films such as A Blonde in Love and The Firemen’s Ball had put a reality on screen that was far from the sanitised and idealised world promoted by Socialist Realism. Also, during 1968, more directly political films had begun to appear, among them Vojtěch Jasný’s All My Good Countrymen and Jaromil Jireš’s The Joke. Jasný’s film, released in July, had first been written in 1956 but was only passed for production in 1967.

The film focuses on the experiences undergone in a single Moravian village in the years 1945-57, together with an epilogue set in 1968. While it bluntly exposes the horrors and failures of agricultural collectivisation, its originality lies in the way in which it concentrates on a group of seven friends, whose lives and relationships become fragmented. The film is also a lyrical poem that asserts ‘the eternal course of Life and nature’ with some remarkable cinematography by Jaroslav Kučera (perhaps most famous for his work on Věra Chytilová’s more avant-garde Daisies). At the end of the film, a well-meaning Communist returns to the village and, with reference to the Prague Spring, indicates that everything is now changing.

All of these films were, of course, part of an approved programme of production which continued on course both during and after the invasion. Curiously enough, The Joke was shooting its celebratory scenes about the arrival of Communism during the invasion itself. Based on the novel by Milan Kundera, which had been published the previous year, it is a tale of revenge in which past and present are intercut in an ongoing critical commentary. Its hero, Ludvik, once wrote ill-advised comments on a postcard to his militant girlfriend in the 1950s as a joke – ‘A healthy spirit reeks of idiocy. Long Live Trotsky!’ The result is two years forced labour, three in the army, and one in military prison. On his release, he determines to revenge himself on his former friend, Pavel, who had been instrumental in his condemnation. However, his plans to seduce Pavel’s wife are misplaced, since Pavel has now abandoned her and has also allied himself with the cause of reform. But this seems to be no more than a superficial change and, by the time of the film’s release in February 1969, the failure of the reform dream was apparent.

Other films shot during the invasion included Juraj Jakubisko’s The Deserter and the Nomads, a three-part film focusing on the First and Second World Wars, and ending with a post-nuclear allegory. During filming, the Soviet tanks rolled into shot. With Soviet tanks in the next street, Karel Kachyňa was also shooting his film The Ear, a terrifying tale of totalitarian mentality set in the 1950s. Kachyňa’s film tells the story of a deputy minister and his wife who return home to discover that their house has been visited by the secret police in their absence. Shot very much in a film noir style, its journey into the atmosphere and state of mind of an era evokes a world of paranoia and fear. The world of Kafka has come to life, with inexplicable fates visited even on those at the centre of the system.

What the year 1969 saw, rather perversely, was the completion of the production programme planned during the Prague Spring. When the cinema should have died, it flowered. Among the films produced between autumn 1968 and the end of 1969 were: Adelheid (František Vláčil), Birds, Orphans and Fools (Jakubisko), A Case for the Young Hangman (Pavel Juráček), Witchhammer (Otakar Vávra), The Ear, Skylarks on a String (Menzel), Adrift (Kadár), 322 (Dušan Hanák), Fruit of Paradise (Chytilová), Seventh Day, Eighth Night (Evald Schorm), and Funural Rites (Zdenek Sirový). Paradoxically, film achievement was both critically and aesthetically at the same level – perhaps higher – than in previous years.

The real repression of cinema began in late 1970 and well over 100 feature films from the previous decade were banned during the next five years. Four of them – All My Good Countrymen, The Firemen’s Ball, together with Jan Němec’s allegorical tale of totalitarian power, The Party and the Guests (1966), and Evald Schorm’s comedy End of a Priest (1968), in which a fake priest engages in ideological discussions with the local Communist mayor – were to be banned ‘for ever’. Others were stopped in mid-production, and a further group of completed films could not be released.

The dead hand of ‘normalisation’ descended on the country for the next 20 years. As the political scientist Milan ýimečka put it, it was a period in which the Communist Party was to become what it had been in the past – ‘united only by obedience and a readiness to fulfil its role as a trustworthy receiver of instructions and directives’. It was to become ‘an age of immobility’.

Given the political changes and new economic realities, relatively few films from this late flowering reached international markets at the time and some – Kachyňa’s The Ear, Menzel’s Skylarks on a String, a stunning comedy adapted from Bohumil Hrabal, and Sirový’s Funeral Rites, an atmospheric journey into the corruption of the 1950s – only made their international debuts in 1990. Thus, Skylarks on a String had the distinction of winning the Golden Bear at the Berlin Festival 20 years after its completion.

But filmmakers didn’t just follow the production programme of 1968, they also filmed the invasion itself. Much of the footage reaching Western media was smuggled out by Jan Němec and finally formed part of his film Oratorio for Prague (1968) – and was also used in Philip Kaufman’s later adaptation of Milan Kundera’s novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1987). Another powerful assemblage was Evald Schorm’s silent film Confusion (1968, released 1990), put together in association with Jan ýankmajer’s current producer, Jaromí­r Kallista.

One of the most interesting films of the time was The Uninvited Guest (1969), a student graduation film made by Vlastimil Venclík. His original story, written two years earlier, was about a couple who receive an uninvited guest – a great hulking man – who decides to stay with them permanently. After originally planning to murder him, they decide to put up with his presence. In the meantime, they discover that all their neighbours have similar guests. Venclík, in this case, does not deny that he intended it as an allegory on the invasion and on the country’s ‘accommodation’. The film was confiscated by state security, and Venclík was expelled and charged with sedition. He finally graduated in 1990 when his film could at last be shown.

The extensive celebration of 1968 – All Power to the Imagination: 1968 and its Legacies – provides a rare opportunity to see some of these works. The season at the Barbican ‘Censorship as a Creative Force’ offers screenings of Skylarks on a String and Funeral Rites (both April 30) while, on May 6, at the Ciné Lumière there will be a screening of Confusion and a selection of contemporary newsreel coverage of the invasion. The evening will be completed by a revival of Leslie Woodhead’s seminal British documentary drama Invasion (1980), which he will introduce.

Woodhead, who headed a special unit at Granada Television, specialised in using documentary drama to explore contemporary subjects inaccessible to conventional reporting (Three Days in Szczecin [1976] among others). Invasion is based on the reminiscences of Zdeněk Mlynáõ (Night Frost in Prague, London, Hurst, 1980), a lawyer who played an important role in the drafting of the Dubček government’s reform programme. With performances by Julian Glover as Dubček and Ray McAnally as Josef Smrkovsky (President of the National Assembly), it’s a remarkable portrait of what went on behind closed doors as a nation’s government was held to ransom, and a penetrating insight into the ways in which Brezhnev and his government viewed the activities and traditions of the smaller countries that fell under its control.

Peter Hames

Peter Hames is the author of The Czechoslovak New Wave, published by Wallflower Press. We have a copy of the book together with a DVD of The Party and the Guests to give away in our May competition. To enter, just spin the Film Roulette!